How can small business deal with today’s currency fluctuations?

Mal Spooner is a veteran fund manager and currently teaches at the Humber College School of Business.
Mal Spooner is a veteran fund manager and currently teaches at the Humber College School of Business.

Right now it’s no secret that selling merchandise to Americans is pretty lucrative.  We also know that it hasn’t always been this way.  A relative of mine who sells lighting products to customers the U.S. is a case in point.

My brother-in-law built a very successful business with his wife from the ground up.  Their decision to sell to markets in the US worked fine, but the real boost to sales occurred when their son joined the business and talked them into selling on the Internet.  Online sales boomed, but of course so did their company’s vulnerability to exchange rate risk.

A few years ago, he was struggling to make his usual margins (which are not that big at the best of times) when the CAD/USD exchange rate approached par.  In other words, a C$ was pretty much equal to the US$.  Cross-border shoppers from the Canadian side of the border were in heaven (myself included), whereas exporters were beginning to panic.  After all, their costs were still in Canadian dollars, which was an advantage when they received sales revenue in a much stronger $US.  Converting back into Canadian currency provided a substantial bonus to their profits and quality of life.

Things are great once again, but how can a smaller business owner(s) plan ahead to make sure that currency risk doesn’t threaten their livelihood?

The graph below illustrates the impact currency can have on a business.  Imagine a fictional Canadian company that began selling a specialty cheese to the U.S. marketplace in June of 2006. The sale price stays the same (due to competitive pressures) at US$ 2.50.  Costs are steady in C$ 1.98 range.  Sales made in US dollars must be converted back to Canadian dollars.  
USD-CAD sales and profits
It is easy to see how just the exchange rate can wreak havoc on a businesses revenues and profitability.  Is it possible to anticipate or prevent this volatility?  When companies are accustomed to very large orders, it is possible to contact your bank and make arrangements to use the currency forward markets in order to ‘hedge’ your profits.  For instance, if one expects to have to convert a significant amount of foreign currency into one’s domestic currency once the order is delivered, you can arrange to lock in the forward exchange rate today, thereby knowing exactly what your margin is (and will be).

However, the orders for most small businesses aren’t large enough to make hedging a viable option. Can you plan for currency fluctuations?  Experts agree that there is no robust way to forecast exchange rates.  Experts have been frustrated trying to predict exchange rates for years, and the forward markets/futures markets are not very good predictors of the exchange rate that will actually occur in 3 to six months.

One approach that has been around (seems like forever) is the purchasing power parity theory.  The price of a consumer product (same materials, can be sourced locally or at same prices) should be the same in different countries, once adjusting for the exchange rate.  Below, the table compares the price of the rather ubiquitous iPhone in Canada, Europe and Asia.  The price of the iPhone 6s 16GB (unlocked) in the U.S. is about $699, and should be more or less the same in Nanjing, China (their currency (is the remninbi or RMB) adjusting for the exchange rate as it is in Berlin Germany (euros).  As you can see from the table, this is not the case (the prices and exchange rates are not 100% accurate due to rounding).

iPhone intl pricing

Because Germans and the Chinese have to pay an even bigger price, it suggests the the USD is overvalued relative to those currencies.  The Canadian dollar on the other hand, based on this overly simple approach is actually still a bit overvalued compared to our neighbour to the south even at these depressed levels.  Of course, our proximity to the US might simply give Canadians a great deal on iPhones not available in other countries.

We should therefore expect the USD to depreciate relative to both the EUR and RMB in due course – the forces of supply and demand (for products, services and therefore currencies) should cause disparate prices to equilibrate.  The mobile device in theory should cost the same to the consumer no matter where he/she lives.  Should the USD decline significantly (perhaps even compared to the Canadian dollar) then the margin on good and services businesses in those countries are earning today with decline.

When sales are in another currency

The problem, is that historically purchasing power parity is also a poor predictor of exchange rates. The game of international finance is extremely complex.  Not only are exchange rates determined by differing interest rates in countries, balance of payments, trade balance, inflation rates and perceived country risks, the rates are also influenced by expectations associated with these variables and more.  The bottom line for smaller businesses is that when it comes to foreign exchange risk – they are completely exposed.

So what can be done?  Planning.  It is tempting to become overly optimistic when exchange rates have drifted in your favour, encouraging further investment to facilitate more sales in the stronger currency.  Buying equipment, hiring permanent labour and leasing more space introduces higher fixed costs that might dampen or destroy profitability when the tide turns the other way.  It is important to consider ‘what if’ scenarios frequently – and especially before laying out more capital. For entrepreneurs the biggest mistake is to take for granted that the status quo will continue.  All of a sudden, you might be buying yourself a bigger house, a fancier car and sending the kids to private school – all based on current income which is linked to the current prosperity of your business.

Currency instability is a fact of life, and the best way to be prepared is to expect the inevitable. Rather than rush to spend more on expanding the business put aside a ‘safety’ cushion during good times that can be drawn upon during bad times.  If your commitment to the US, European or other markets is firm, then park the cushion into currencies you are vulnerable too.  For example, invest your cushion in US dollar denominated assets – U.S. Treasury bills will provide a natural hedge for your sales.  Similarly, if a significant volume of your sales are in Europe and the company borrows funds for operations, borrow some funds in euros as a hedge – then if the euro appreciates you’re able to pay those obligations in the same stronger currency thanks you your euro receivables.

It is widely believed today that the USD is likely to depreciate relative to a number of other currencies, and perhaps imminently.  Today might indeed be the ideal time to begin considering ‘what if’ scenarios and the actions you can take to plan ahead.

 

 

How to Tell the Difference Between Investing and Gambling!

gamblingI saw a question posted on a popular social network. The question was: ‘What is the difference between gambling and investing?” I’m inspired to reproduce (edited with permission) the following excerpt from A Maverick Investor’s Guidebook (Insomniac Press, 2011) which I believe provides as good an answer as one might find.

How to Tell the Difference Between Investing and Gambling!

“How do you develop ‘smart thinking’ and when do you know you’ve got ‘avarice’?”

My instinctive response would be: “You always know when you’re being greedy. You just want someone else to say that your greed is okay.” Well, I’ll say it then: greed is okay. The proviso is that you fully understand when greed is motivating your decision and live with the consequences. Avarice is driven by desire, which is not a trait of an investor.

Remember, it’s best if investment decisions are rational and stripped of emotion. Greed is associated with elation on the one hand, and anger (usually directed at oneself) on the other hand.

When decisions are motivated by greed, I call it gambling. In my mind, there are different sorts of gamblers. Some gamblers place modest bets, and if they win, they move along to another game. For me this might be roulette. There are those who enjoy playing one game they’re good at, such as blackjack or craps, hoping for a big score. Finally, there are those who are addicts. I can’t help those folks, so let’s assume we’re just discussing the first two types.

It’s okay to do a bit of gambling with a modest part of your disposable income. In fact, investors can apply some of what they know and have fun too. Unlike the casinos, financial markets have no limits or games stacked in favour of the house. It’s the Wild West, and if an investor understands herd behaviour and the merits of contrarian thinking, and does some research, the results can be quite lucrative. Whether using stocks, bonds, options, hedge funds, domestic mutual funds, foreign equity or debt funds, or commodity exchange-traded funds (if you don’t know what these things are and want to know, buy a book that introduces investment theory and the various types of securities), applying investment principles will help you be more successful.

gamblerTo put it plainly: counting cards may not be allowed in a casino, but anything goes when it comes to markets. Just don’t forget that most of the financial industry is trying to make your money their money. There’s a reason why a cowboy sleeps with his boots on and his gun within reach.

The fine line between gambling and investing is hard even for old cowhands to pinpoint. Investing also involves bets, but the bets are calculated. Every decision an investor makes involves a calculated bet—whether it’s to be in the market or not at all, biasing a portfolio in favour of stocks versus bonds, skewing stock selection in favour of one or several industry groups, or picking individual stocks or other types of securities.

I met a lady once in line at a convenience store. She bought a handful of lottery tickets, and I asked her, “Aren’t the odds of winning pretty remote for those lotteries?” Her reply was, “The odds are good. There’s a fifty/fifty chance of me winning.” Confused, I asked, “How do you figure?” I laughed aloud when she said, “Either I win or I lose; that’s fifty/fifty, isn’t it?”

A maverick investor knows there’s always a probability that any decision to buy or sell or hold can prove to be incorrect. The objective is to minimize that probability as much as is feasible. It’s impossible to make it zero. This is why financial firms have sold so many “guaranteed” funds lately. People love the idea, however impossible, of being allowed to gamble with no chance of losing. Whenever there’s a promise that you won’t lose or some other similar guarantee, my senses fire up a warning flare.

There’s usually a promise of significant upside potential and a guarantee that at worst you’ll get all (or a portion) of your original investment back. Many investors a few years ago bought so-called guaranteed funds only to find that the best they ever did receive was the guaranteed amount (extremely disappointing) or much less after the fees were paid to the company offering the product. If you think this stuff is new, trust me, it’s not.

guaranteedA fancy formula-based strategy back in the ‘80s called “portfolio insurance” was popular for a brief period. An estimated $60 billion of institutional money was invested in this form of “dynamic hedging.” It isn’t important to know in detail how the math works. Basically, if a particular asset class (stocks, bonds, or short-term securities) goes up, then you could “afford” to take more risk because you are richer on paper anyway, so the program would then buy more of a good thing. If this better-performing asset class suddenly stopped performing, you simply sold it quickly to lock in your profits. The problem was that all these programs wanted to sell stocks on the same day, and when everyone decides they want to sell and there are no buyers, you get a stalemate.

The “insurance” might have worked if you actually could sell the securities just because you wanted to, but if you can’t sell, you suffer along with everyone else—the notional guarantee isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on. Remember these are markets, and even though you see a price in the newspaper or your computer screen for a stock, there’s no trade unless someone will step up to buy stock from you. The market crash that began on Black Monday— October 19, 1987—was, in my opinion, fuelled by portfolio insurance programs. The market was going down, so the programs began selling stocks all at once. There weren’t nearly enough buyers to trade with. By the end of October ’87, stock markets in Hong Kong had fallen 45.5%, and others had fallen as follows: Australia 41.8%, Spain 31%, the U.K. 26.4%, the U.S. 22.7%, and Canada 22.5%.

Minimizing the Probability of Stupidity

If you’re gambling, follow the same steps you would as if you were investing. If it’s a particular stock you are anxious to own, do some homework, or at least look at someone else’s research available through your broker or on the Internet. When I was a younger portfolio manager, there were limited means to learn about a company. I would have to call the company and ask for a hardcopy annual report to be sent to me. When it arrived after several days, I’d study it a bit so I didn’t sound too ignorant, then I’d call and try to get an executive (controller, VP finance, or investor relations manager) to talk to me. If asking questions didn’t satisfy my need to know, then I’d ask to come and meet with them in the flesh. Nowadays, you have all the information you need at your fingertips.

Money.ca is a PRIME example of just one such source of valuable information available to investors today!

Mal Spooner
Mal Spooner

Mutual Fund Mania – Choose wisely during RRSP season!

Usually the first vehicle of choice for new investors is a mutual fund. In days of yore, which in the investment industry is more than five years ago, investors usually bought equity funds but in more recent times balanced funds have grown more popular and even bond funds have attracted money.

Oftentimes, the first mutual fund experience is a disappointing one. There’s a reason for this. People intuitively want to be associated with success, so their first mutual fund will have these characteristics:

  • A great track record of top quartile performance over at least three to five years.
  • Billions of dollars invested in it, so it is “safe.”
  • Offered by an investment firm with a long and “distinguished” history.

Many years ago, there was much less data readily available and few statistical tools at one’s disposal, but I was curious and decided to examine a group of funds over time to see what their performance looked like. What I discovered is represented in the chart. There were no exceptions; every fund in my sample followed this same pattern.

It doesn’t take a mathematician to interpret a picture. If you invest in the fund when it’s a dog (ranks very poorly compared to other funds), the odds are great that given time it will be a top performer soon enough.

The problem is that most investors will pick a top performer. However, the top performer will soon become a dog, and the investor will be unhappy.

A great track record might actually guarantee poor performance.

When it comes to your money, intuition sucks. You “intuitively” steer towards something that “feels good.”

There is enough publicly available data nowadays to help you find a few funds that suit your tastes and examine their performance patterns. What suits your tastes may include funds that are easy to buy in and out of, those you have read about in the press, whose portfolio manager sounds smart on TV, or you may prefer socially responsible funds. When one of the funds that does occasionally perform very well has been in a slump over the past year or two, buy it. After the performance has improved over the course of a couple of years and you’re happy with the results, consider selling (or redeeming) it when the fund is in the top of the rankings (or wins an award) and buy a different fund that is in a temporary slump.

Being a curious sort, I once had the urge to see if award-winning funds followed the same pattern. After all, if someone wants a top-performing fund, wouldn’t they head straight for the ones that have just won awards for their outstanding performance?

I looked at the award-winning funds in any given year, and then checked their performance just one year later. Rather than examine every category (there are just too many nowadays) I stuck to basic Canadian equity, U.S. equity, small cap, international equity. Included were “thematic” funds popular at the time, such as ‘precious metals’ and the ‘dividend and income’ funds. Here are a couple of examples of what I usually found:

Results:

  • 100% of the winners were either 1st or 2nd quartile funds. The next year, 88% of these had fallen to 3rd or 4th quartile.
  • All the former 3rd quartile funds (dogs) rose to 1st quartile (stars) in the following year.

Winning an award (being a top performer) is not an indication of how that fund will rank in terms of its future performance, even in the following year. In fact, the odds are awfully good that your 1st or 2nd quartile pick will be below the median or worse one year later. Interesting! If there’s a lesson, I suppose it’s simply that funds should be bought because they meet your objectives, not because they’ve been performing well recently.

It’s not important to understand why this roller coaster occurs for mutual funds, it just does. Markets change, so, for example, when a growth fund invested primarily in technology stocks suffers, it’s no doubt because the upward trend in technology stocks, or their popularity among the herd, has either stopped or deteriorated. Apple is a prime example in the news right now.

Portfolio managers are just people working for people. I’ve witnessed the following scenario occur time and again:

  • Fund performance begins to soar.
  • Fund attracts lots of new money.
  • Marketing folks want more and more time from portfolio manager for meetings.
  • Money pours into the fund in droves.
  • Portfolio manager’s head swells (the “I’m a genius” syndrome).
  • Performance begins to deteriorate.
  • Money leaves the fund in droves.
  • Portfolio manager has to sell the fund’s best stocks (there are still buyers for these).
  • Performance sucks, and it takes two to three years for things to get back to normal.

Size really doesn’t matter…unless the fund is humongous.

A thinking person should be able to figure out that it doesn’t take a big fund or a big fund company to provide good performing funds. Think about it. Do you shop at the big box stores because the level of service is better? Is the quality of the merchandise better? No. You shop there because the economy of scale for the store allows them to buy products at a lower cost. They can order in bigger volumes and squeeze their suppliers. They then pass these savings to their customers.

Larger financial institutions enjoy similar economies of scale. Of course, the transactions and administration costs of the bank or insurance company are lower, and these benefits might come your way in the form of lower fees and expenses, but we’re not talking about buying lawnmowers. Rates of return on funds managed nimbly and intelligently can make those fees and expenses pale by comparison.

Bigger is safer possibly when you’re banking, but legitimate capital management companies are structured so that they never really touch your money. The custodial (where the money is physically held) and administrative (recordkeeping) functions are usually provided to these firms by big banks or huge financial institutions anyway—for safety and regulatory reasons and it makes the potential for fraud near impossible.

The reason why large financial services companies got into the fund management business was simply economics. They were providing banking, custodial, and administrative services to mutual fund and other asset management companies anyway, so why not also earn management fees by offering their own mutual funds and private wealth management services?

Take it from someone who knows from experience. Managing a massive quantity of money in one fund is much more difficult for a portfolio manager. You can only buy big companies. A portfolio manager will try to buy the best big companies, but since everyone else with big portfolios is doing the same thing, it’s not like you can outsmart them. It’s sort of like playing poker with jacks, queens, and kings being the only cards in the deck. If the three other players see three kings on the table, everyone knows you still have one in your hand.

Applying some discipline is important when directing your savings and will spare you much grief. For several years since the financial crisis, investors have swarmed into bond (see chart – it shows the net Sales of bond mutual funds) and balanced funds because of their strong relative performance and are considered to be less risky. Even today buying into income-oriented funds ‘feels good’ – everyone else is doing it, past performance is good and the fright we all experienced during the financial crisis still stings a bit.

Equity funds have been avoided for years – constantly redeemed – despite the fact the stock market returns have been outstanding since the crisis more or less ended (or at least stabilized). Now that the past returns are looking better, investors will be shifting money out of the bond funds (and perhaps balanced funds as well) and chasing the top performing equity funds.

This is an inferior strategy. If you examine the best ‘rated’ funds you will find they hold more dividend paying and income securities and will likely drop in the rankings very soon after you buy them.

With RRSP season comes a plethora of marketing campaigns and firms will be pushing us to buy their best performing funds (we are so quick to buy what ‘feels good’). Since you won’t see many advertisements for those not doing so well today, but are likely to do very well tomorrow, it would be wise to do a bit of homework before buying in. Good luck!

Mal Spooner

 

 

 

Travel Insurance – outside Canada

Greetings once again and I am going to pickup from last week’s topic of the need for travel medical and dental insurance – this time looking at things outside Canada.

First, of course, the quality of emergency medical and dental care varies widely around the world – particularly outside North America, the European Union, parts of the Pacific Rim and Austral-asia areas. With that as a given, let’s look at coverages.

Many plans have exclusions or limited benefits payable if you have a flare up/emergency related to an existing medical condition – such as a history of heart problems, diabetes, stroke, etc. READ THE LIMITATIONS BEFORE YOU BUY! I am not aware of any travel insurance policies that cover costs incurred on a “medical” vacation or for cosmetic procedures or treatments.

The questions on the application must be completed with 100% accuracy – if you are not sure how to answer them, go and see your doctor – do not “guess” at the answers – this can easily result in your claim be denied or severely restricted. Listing of your medications, dosage and duration of treatment or use of that medication will also be required. Check if the plan has a toll-free number for emergency personnel to call and get approval for treatment. Check if you have to pay the bill yourself first and then submit a claim to the insurance company or if the medical providers can bill the insurance company directly.

If you travel regularly out of Canada, you may be better off purchasing a multi-trip plan that gives you coverage for a full year for a number of trips of varying durations.

To quote the Ontario Ministry of Health and Long Term Care: “You are strongly advised to purchase additional health insurance every time you leave Canada and ensure that the supplementary insurance you have purchased provides adequate coverage.”